by Bastoche | 11/25/2007 03:02:00 PM
The evidence, as a November 18 Washington Post editorial intones, is “overwhelming.” The evidence that the editorial adduces includes signs of diminishing violence throughout Iraq, the rout of al Qaeda from its strongholds, and a renewal of normal activity in the markets of Baghdad. On the basis of such evidence the indisputable verdict can now be delivered: “the ‘surge’ of U.S. military forces in Iraq this year has been, in purely military terms, a remarkable success.”

But as the editorial goes on to say, the “principal objective of the surge was not military, but political.” By purely military means the American counterinsurgency operation—the surge—has substantially reduced sectarian strife. A political space has thus been created in which the factions composing the Iraqi government can begin peacefully to settle their differences. Unfortunately, “Iraq's national government seems all but paralyzed, its leaders unable to set aside sectarian agendas despite the ebb of sectarian warfare.” In the words of General Ray Odierno, a “window of opportunity” has been opened, but the sectarian stubbornness of the Iraqi government, and particularly its ruling Shiite faction, is perversely letting it slip shut again.

This editorial is just one contribution to a new narrative that is now being written about the Iraq War. In this narrative the war is being won but victory is in danger of being fatally compromised by the intransigence of the Iraqi government. And it is obvious that the goal of this narrative is not only to interpret the present situation in Iraq but also to control the future debate about Iraq. We need therefore to begin to address the cogency of this narrative, and a good place to start is the recent Weekly Standard essay by Kimberly Kagan, wife of Fred Kagan, one of the so-called “architects” of the surge. Since the beginning of the surge Kimberly Kagan has been contributing detailed updates of its progress to the Standard. Her latest effort, “How They Did It,” describes the course and assesses the results of the surge. Though Kagan, of course, lauds the surge as a success, we’ll see that, on its own terms, the surge is not the success that she and other proponents of the war declare it to be. We’ll also see that the window of opportunity that is being pushed shut is not the one they think it is.

1. Okay Then, How Did They Do It?

“The surge of operations that American and Iraqi forces began on June 15 has dramatically improved security in Baghdad and throughout Iraq,” Kagan begins. As expert witness she brings forward General Ray Odierno who attributes the success of the surge to three factors. First, the counterinsurgency strategy on which the surge is based, the so-called “clear, hold, and build” strategy, has proved an operational success. In its clearing phase, the surge has eliminated “extremist safe havens and sanctuaries,” and now, in its holding phase, the surge is enabling us “to maintain our gains.” Second, the “the ongoing quantitative and qualitative improvement of the Iraqi security forces” has enabled them to contribute significantly to both the clearing and holding phases of the surge operation. Third, there has been “a clear rejection of al Qaeda and other extremists by large segments of the population.” The best evidence for this rejection is “the bottom-up awakening movement by both Sunni and Shia who want a chance to reconcile with the government of Iraq.”

This “bottom-up” movement is the most important indication that the surge is working. Any counterinsurgency has as one of its goals the separation of the insurgents from the local populations that provide them with information, supplies, and sanctuary. Though necessary to the success of a counterinsurgency campaign, this separation of locals from insurgents is not sufficient to squelch an insurgency. Once the counterinsurgency has effectively detached locals from insurgents, it must keep them detached, and the only effective and lasting way of keeping locals detached from insurgents is to attach them to the government against which the insurgents are fighting. According to Odierno, the surge is doing precisely that. Both Sunni and Shia populations are, from the “bottom-up,” separating themselves from al Qaeda and seeking to “reconcile” with the central government in Baghdad.

Kagan now gives us a brief operational history of the surge. Proceeding from the center, Baghdad, and working outward, the surge has implemented its “clear and hold” strategy in three phases. The first phase, the Baghdad Security Plan, started in February and used standard counterinsurgency methods to detach the local populations in Baghdad from the extremists. By establishing close day-to-day contacts with locals, American troops gained their trust and cooperation. Willing now to work with the Americans, locals supplied them with the information they needed to target al Qaeda elements and drive down “the number of execution-style killings in the capital.” The second phase, Phantom Thunder, which extended from June 15 to July 15, consisted of a series of “major clearing operations” in and around Baghdad which drove al Qaeda operatives from such sanctuaries as Baquba and Falluja. The third phase, Phantom Strike, began in mid-August and remains current. Its purpose is to hold the positions cleared in June and July and to prevent the extremists routed from their old sanctuaries from establishing new ones.

Without doubt the most important aspect of this holding phase of the surge has been the spontaneous movement by “concerned citizens” in the various localities to secure the gains that the surge has made. Even before the onset of the surge, tribal leaders in Ramadi, the capital of al Anbar province, were turning against the excesses of al Qaeda militants. General Petraeus, Kagan says, was alert to the strategic potential of this development and “transformed the tribal movement in Anbar into a national phenomenon supportive of government institutions.” Petreus, that is, recognized the true significance of the al Anbar phenomenon, namely that local populations were detaching themselves spontaneously from al Qaeda influence and reorienting themselves to the government in Baghdad. He therefore “fostered grassroots movements throughout Iraq, methodically negotiating security agreements with local officials, tribes, and former insurgent leaders.” Petreus, Kagan confidently asserts, has “thus achieved one of the major objectives of the counterinsurgency strategy by reconciling much of the Sunni population with the government.”

It is now up to the Maliki government to take advantage of “the window of opportunity” the surge has provided and integrate the Sunni population, and especially those former Sunni insurgents who have turned against al Qaeda, into a truly representative Iraqi government. Such a reconciliation between the dissonant factions of Iraq has always been “the ultimate objective of the surge,” Kagan says. But whether that harmonization can be achieved, she concludes, “remains to be seen.”

Though Kagan ends her overview on an appropriately cautionary note, she nonetheless has marshaled her information in such a way as to drive home her essential point: on its own terms, both military and political, the surge has been a resounding success. Kagan understands that clearing and holding can be ephemeral phenomena. By means of appropriate military methods judiciously applied, a counterinsurgency can succeed in detaching locals from insurgents. But in order to keep them detached the counterinsurgency must “win their hearts and minds;” that is, it must reorient their political allegiance away from the insurgents and attach it to the government against which the insurgents are fighting. And, according to Kagan, such reorientation is precisely what the surge has accomplished. Thus, echoing Odierno, she emphasizes and extols the “bottom up” movement of “concerned citizens” who have turned away from al Qaeda and are now seeking to “reconcile” with the Maliki government.

I have no doubt that Kagan is right when she claims that many local Sunni populations have detached themselves, at least for now, from the Salafi Sunni jihadis who refer to themselves as al Qaeda. As she herself admits, the Anbar sheiks needed no prompting from Petreus to begin ridding themselves of the jihadis in their midst. For one thing, the more radical Salafists have as their goal a grand pan-Islamic caliphate that would absorb into itself Iraq and all other Islamic states, and most Sunnis have no interest whatsoever in becoming members of anything resembling an all-encompassing caliphate. Further, even those nationalist jihadis who reject the idea of a caliphate and who want to transform only Iraq into a radical Islamic state have repelled moderate Sunnis by their fanatic brutality. And finally, the secular Sunni Baathists, who still dream of restoring themselves to their former positions of preeminence and power, have wasted no tears on the damage done to a faction whose radical religiosity they loathe and detest.

However, this detaching of local Sunni populations from al Qaeda (more accurately, from the Salafi jihadis who call themselves al Qaeda) has been only preliminary to the crucial part of the counterinsurgency campaign: attaching the Sunnis to the Shiite government. Or, to put it another way, the principal objective of the surge is to convince the Sunni population to avow the legitimacy of the Shiite government. Kagan understands that the focus of a counterinsurgency is not on the insurgents in isolation, but on the interrelated dynamic between the insurgents and the local populations in which they operate. For a counterinsurgency to succeed, it is not enough to degrade, by military means, the operational efficacy of the insurgents. It must also convince the locals that the insurgents are not a legitimate political force. Once it has achieved that goal it can then reorient the locals and convince them that the government against which the insurgents are fighting is a legitimate political entity and one to which they owe their allegiance. According to Kagan, that objective is well on its way to being realized, for the local Sunni populations who have detached themselves from “al Qaeda” have transformed themselves into “concerned citizens” who avow the legitimacy of the Shiite government and are seeking non-violently to “reconcile” with it.

2. Jurf al Sakhr

To test her proposition that the surge has prompted local Sunni populations to reconcile with the Maliki government, I’ll examine briefly an illuminating example of the “clear and hold” strategy implemented by Petreus. In a November 13 article in McClatchy, Nancy Youssef describes the transformation of Jurf al Sakhr from an al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent stronghold to a town composed of “concerned citizens” willing to work with the Maliki government. Jurf al Sakhr, located in Babil province, just south of Baghdad, is a Sunni town in a predominately Shiite region. In order to protect the resident Sunnis from possible Shiite violence, Saddam deployed troops to the town, nearly all of whom “became unemployed overnight in 2003 when the US occupation government disbanded the Iraqi army.” Soon after the forced demobilization of these troops, “the town became a key Islamic militant stronghold, where residents earned a living by attacking US troops.” Though Youssef does not make the connection explicit, it seems that the disbanded Sunni troops took on another role, that of insurgent, and allied themselves with Salafi militants against the occupying Americans.

Once the surge got underway and chased the extremists from the town, the Americans had to “hold” it, that is, secure it against a resurgence of militant activity. To facilitate this stage of the counterinsurgency, the Americans selected Sabah al Janabi, “the tribal sheik of the Islamic Army, the secular Sunni insurgency,” and installed him as “mayor” of the town. A flurry of dealmaking ensued. Janabi visited the nearby Shiite town of Musayyib and assured its leaders that their town would be safe from Sunni violence. In return he asked that they recognize his new status as “mayor” of Jurf al Sakhr. They did so, and he next approached the government leaders of Babil province and won from them a mayoral salary. The dealmaking reached its culmination when the Americans “agreed to employ Sheik Sabah’s fellow tribesmen and former insurgents as concerned local citizens,” that is, as a security force whose members “would earn $375 a month.” Thus in one astounding and remunerative swoop the Americans transformed former Sunni insurgents from enemies of the state into reliable supporters of the Shiite regime.

This American-formed and American-paid contingent of tribesmen and former insurgents was charged with the maintenance of the town’s safety and peace, and it seems that they did their job well, since “violence dropped immediately.” Reconstruction began, and Janabi, foreseeing the time when the Americans would leave and take their money with them, approached the provincial government of Babil for funds to continue the reconstruction projects. “We want to be equal with the Shiites,” Janabi said, knowing full well that the Sunnis of Jurf al Sakhr will be able to achieve equality with their Shiite neighbors only if the Shiite government funds their efforts at reconstruction and security.

Just as it is in the self-interest of the tribesmen and former insurgents to acclimate themselves peacefully to their new and profitable position, so too it is in the self-interest of the Shiite government to maintain them in that position when the Americans leave. It seems, though, that such mutually sustaining self-interest will not, finally, dictate the outcome of the situation. The Sunni residents of Jurf al Sakhr “assume that the elected central government,” the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, “will never help them.” And neither is it “clear whether the Shiite provincial government will support the Sunni town.” Without support from either the central or the provincial government, though, the newly created “concerned citizens” will not be able “to keep Islamic extremists from dominating the town again.”

As we’ve seen, it is American largesse that is currently funding the tribesmen and former insurgents who compose the “concerned citizens” of the security force. When the Americans leave, the funds that support the security force leave with them. If both the Baghdad and the provincial governments refuse to step in as a substitute source of funding, the tribesmen and former insurgents will not only abandon their efforts at maintaining security, they will drop all pretense that they are “concerned citizens” who avow the legitimacy of a central Shiite government. And the Salafists will return, unopposed by the “concerned citizens” whose reconciliation with the Baghdad government was achieved and sustained only by the powerful stimulus of American cash.

If Jurf al Sakhr is representative of the methods of the insurgency, then its story seriously undermines Kagan’s conclusion that the “concerned citizen” movement is reconciling Sunni populations to the Shiite government. The Sunni population of Jurf al Sakhr, including the former insurgents, reject and have detached themselves from the extremist agenda of the Salafi jihadis. But they have not attached themselves to the Shiite government. The allegiance of the former insurgents is floating and will anchor itself only in a source of reliable income. They will, that is, be willing to reconcile with the Shiite government and avow its legitimacy, but only if that government financially supports their current role as “concerned citizens.”

3. Whose Nation Is It Anyway?

And maybe not even then. The new Iraq narrative claims that the surge has done its job and all that is now required for peace to become a real possibility is for the Maliki government to take advantage of the self-interest of these “citizens” and financially to support their “concern.” But it’s quite possible that Maliki has assessed the situation and concluded that, behind the façade of “concerned citizenry,” motives other than mere self-interest remain powerfully at work. In other words, if Maliki is not reaching out to and funding the newly hatched Sunni security forces it is because he recognizes that the locals who compose such forces, especially former insurgents, are motivated not only by self-interest but also by something that under the right conditions will blow self-interest at the moon: a nationalist ideal.

In spite of the emphasis that the surge and its proponents have placed on the Salafi jihadis they call al Qaeda, the prime motivating force of the insurgency has never derived from this small subset of the Sunni population. It has derived, rather, from those Sunnis, including former Baathists, incensed by the radical shift in the balance of power between themselves and their Shiite compatriots. Both the Sunni and the Shia know that at present the balance of power favors the Shia. Reconciliation, therefore—and an end to the insurgency--means that the resentful and disaffected Sunnis must accept their status as a secondary faction in a Shia-dominated state.

Maliki knows, however, that many Sunnis—and of course many former Sunni insurgents—are not now and might never be fully reconciled to Shiite dominance in the politics and culture of Iraq. These Sunnis are willing for the present to reach an accommodation with the Shiite government, but that accommodation is a dangerously fragile one. Maliki, then, can reach out and fund local Sunni security forces, but he will, no doubt, also ask himself how long the Sunni “concerned citizens” will rest content with a poor pittance of local power and concede the real prize of national power to their Shia rivals. To put this problem in the context of Jurf al Sakhr: Will the former Sunni insurgents, even if they are given financial support by the Shiite government, long remain satisfied with their new status as guardians of local order, or will they sooner or later band together with other local Sunni security forces (and, possibly, homegrown Salafi jihadis) and attempt to recapture what they see as their rightful status in Iraq?

In an excellent post at Marc Lynch’s blog, Abu Aardvark, Brian Katulis reminds us that “Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts at their core are vicious struggles for power.” It is therefore unlikely that the “concerned citizens” or “bottom-up” movements have convinced the Maliki government that the local Sunni populations, and especially, of course, the former insurgents, have become pacified supporters of the Shiite state. Quite the contrary, the local military successes of these movements, according to Katulis, have “put Shia leaders on edge” and have made them wary of supplying these movements with financial or material assistance. After all, Katulis asks, “Why…would Maliki and his Shi’a coalition want to supply resources to people they believe are bent to destroy them?”

Why indeed? The struggle for power between the Sunni and the Shia is and will continue to be a struggle between two competing national ideals. There are those among the Sunnis who have not forgotten their predominant position in the nation of Iraq, and their ultimate goal remains not local or provincial power but national power. Though at present “reconciled” to the Shiite state, they still believe that the only truly legitimate government is a Sunni government, and they will bide their time and await the opportunity that they know will come to restore themselves to their rightful place as leaders of their nation.

If such is the case—if, that is, a significant faction among the Sunni population refuses to concede that a Shiite government is a legitimate government—then, on its own terms, the surge is now and will continue to be a failure. To claim success a counterinsurgency must not just degrade the military efficacy of the insurgents but must attach the allegiance of the population to the government against which the insurgents are fighting. If the counterinsurgency fails in that political mission then it has fundamentally failed. And it certainly seems as if the surge in Iraq has failed in that mission. Separating local Sunni populations from the radical Salafists does nothing to address the fundamental problem, namely that many among the Sunni population refuse to see a Shiite government as anything other than an alien intruder. The “concerned citizen” movement is no doubt a useful tool that the surge can use against extremists, but it is not indicative of a Sunni willingness to concede legitimacy to a Shia-dominated government. Behind the façade of “reconciliation” that the “concerned” Sunnis present to their occupiers is not only self-interest but something even more potent and dangerous: their inextinguishable intent to reclaim the national power, and with it the national honor, that they have lost.

4. Disengage and Reengage

One would think that the Kagans, themselves idealists, would understand the power that ideals have in shaping the flow of history and realize that the “reconciliation” of local Sunni groups, and especially former Sunni insurgents, with the Shiite government is, to a crucial extent, a relationship of convenience. But the Kagans themselves are committed to a nationalistic ideal, one to which all others, finally, must and will give way.

For neocons such as the Kagans, America’s destiny is to spread its ideal of freedom and democracy throughout the world. Indeed, it is our moral obligation not just to spread that ideal in the Middle East, but even to impose it, because we are in a struggle with those who are seeking to impose on that region their ideal of despotism and terror. We are engaged, that is, in a world-historical struggle against a fascistic terrorism that seeks to dominate not only the Middle East but also the world, and we must not disengage from Iraq until we have won that struggle. The fate not just of Iraq but of our national ideal—the preservation of freedom from autocrats and terrorists--depends now on our will to remain in Iraq until we eradicate terrorism and establish a functioning democracy in which the contending factions can settle their differences peacefully.

One must, I think, concede the Kagans this point: the achievement of a functioning non-violent democracy in Iraq is a possibility. When Sabah al Janabi said that the Sunni of Jurf al Sakhr want to be equal with the Shia, he seemed to indicate not only that he wants to reach an accommodation with his Shiite neighbors but also that he can reach such an accommodation. In other words, at least some among the Sunni locals will accept their status as a minority in Iraq—and accept a Shiite government as a legitimate government—as long as they are treated by the Shiite majority as their cultural and political equals. On such a foundation a reconciliation is indeed possible. But that reconciliation is possible only if we admit that the surge, that last and best hope of the neocons, has failed, and that America cannot resolve the problem of sectarian strife in Iraq by military means. Such an admission leaves us only one rational and potentially productive option: Disengage militarily and reengage, within a multinational framework that includes Iran, Turkey, and the other regional powers, diplomatically and economically.

We now have, I think, a window of opportunity to effect such a military disengagement and diplomatic reengagement. The Bush administration and its neocon enablers, however, will not just let that window slip shut—they will push it shut. To disengage from Iraq militarily is to cede control of the situation to the Iraqis themselves, and that is something the neocons will not tolerate. They will not let a situation develop in which they can no longer assert their will, and as long as America remains an occupier and implements one or another form of military persuasion, they can continue to assert their will and control, so they think, the course of history. The neocons have their ideal imperial vision of the Middle East—a paradise of freedom and democracy under American auspices—and they have no intention of leaving until they realize it.

It is, however, one thing to help the Iraqis achieve a reconciliation by means of diplomatic persuasion and economic aid and quite another to impose it on them at the point of a gun. The former respects the sovereignty of Iraq as a nation and the independence of the Iraqis as a people. The latter reduces Iraq to an appendage of American self-interest and the Iraqis to subjects of American will.

And the Iraqis know the difference between the two.

5. Go Away.

Though the residents of Jurf al Sakhr no longer assume the role of insurgent and attack American troops, “their disdain [for the occupying Americans] remains,” Youssef writes. As an illustration of their seemingly insurmountable animosity for the occupiers, she offers this telling little incident: “As U.S. troops walked up to Sheik Sabah's office last week, his young son, Ahmad, sneered ‘Go away’ in Arabic.”

Go away. These two words capture accurately the attitude that many in Iraq have towards their occupiers. The Iraqis understand the significance of the American presence. By occupying their country America is determined to assert its will and to dictate the course of events according to its own purposes and goals. And the purposes and goals of the Iraqis? America will see to it, forcibly if need be, that the goals of the Iraqis, Sunni and Shia both, coincide with the goals of America.

One of America’s goals is certainly a practical one: to secure for itself access to a vital natural resource, oil. Another and no less important goal is to advance its historical mission: to oppose tyranny and to promote democracy. The neocons can be practical politicians but they are at their core indefatigable moralists. Next time I’ll return to a quintessential example of the political moralist, Robert Kagan, and to the philosopher who differentiated, on the basis of the categorical imperative, the political moralist from the moral politician, Immanuel Kant.

Note: The Katulis post is part of a series of exchanges between him and Colin Kahl. Marc Lynch provides links and comments of his own here. Highly recommended.

Crossposted at dailykos



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/28/2007 11:40 PM:

And this is the most frightening bit of the bunch:

To disengage from Iraq militarily is to cede control of the situation to the Iraqis themselves, and that is something the neocons will not tolerate. They will not let a situation develop in which they can no longer assert their will, and as long as America remains an occupier and implements one or another form of military persuasion, they can continue to assert their will and control, so they think, the course of history.

Well done, as always.